A worshipper prays intently before the reliquary containing fragments of St. Anthony of Padua before the evening Mass that was celebrated by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M. Vic Mistretta photo
A worshipper prays intently before the reliquary containing fragments of St. Anthony of Padua before the evening Mass that was celebrated by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M. Vic Mistretta photo

By Lois Rogers |Correspondent

Just as in life, when multitudes flocked to hear St. Anthony of Padua preach, so in death, believers show their devotion at his tomb in Italy in the Basilica of di Sant’Antonio, at shrines around the world, in churches during the visitation of his relics.

Photo Gallery: Co-Cathedral hosts relics of St. Anthony of Padua

And that was the case in Freehold Township Oct. 10 when more than 1,000 faithful from around the Trenton Diocese and beyond traveled to St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral to venerate two of his holy relics.

From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., the Co-Cathedral welcomed people of all ages, from the very elderly to babes in arms, who came to encounter and pray with the relics of the beloved saint which will have visited 15 churches in the Tri-State area between Oct. 4 and 14 before returning to Padua.

The chance to venerate his relics caused tears of gratitude to course down many faces as countless hands reached out to caress the reliquaries which contained a small piece of bone and a fragment of skin.

It was a rare opportunity, many said, to draw near to the mortal remains of St. Anthony, anchor of faith, great theologian and finder of what has been lost down through the centuries.

In his homily at the Mass he celebrated in the evening, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., offered perspective on the ongoing affection millions of people around the world hold for St. Anthony, born in Portugal in the late 12thh century, who lived only 36 years.

Concelebrating were Conventual Franciscan Father Mario Conte, custodian of the relics, Msgr. Thomas N. Gervasio, diocesan vicar general; Msgr. Sam A. Sirianni, rector of the Co-Cathedral; Conventual Franciscan priests, and diocesan priests.

The Bishop spoke of sharing his own devotion to St. Anthony, patron of amputees, to whom he prayed when he was recovering from his 2014 surgery during which his lower left leg was amputated. He said that as he venerated the relics in the Co-Cathedral, he reflected on the saint’s short life, wondering, “what it was that singled him out so remarkably for the Church’s attention and devotions.”

St. Anthony, he said, became known for many things including “good preaching, teaching and devotion to the poor and the sick.” His background, including being entrusted with the academic formation of young friars showed the trust placed in him by the Franciscan order and its founder, St. Francis of Assisi.

What made St. Anthony a saint, was not “the interesting background,” the Bishop, said, but rather, that “he allowed the Lord Jesus Christ to take hold of his mind and heart, to take hold of his soul, to live so clearly within” within the Lord that “all who met him, saw him, heard him and knew him” also met, saw and knew the Lord.”

“As a friar, a priest, a teacher and preacher, Anthony witnessed Christ.”

But of all the things for which St. Anthony is known, the Bishop said, “he is most widely considered the patron of lost things, a title rooted” in Anthony’s experience in recovering a precious book. In a moving litany, Bishop O’Connell expanded “the lost car keys or eyeglasses,” to expound on the critical losses that draw people to ask the saint’s help -- lost contact with children, faith, good health, peace of mind or heart, a sense of purpose or control over alcohol or drugs “or some other addiction,” loss of joy, gratitude or “confidence in the Church and her leaders, especially in recent days of scandal and abuse and cover up; pray for St. Anthony’s help, now more than ever.”

Connecting with St. Anthony

That faithful down through the centuries have turned to St. Anthony with a list of concerns reflects the sense of connection he inspires, said Father Conte, who has traveled extensively with the relics since 1995.

At the morning and evening Masses, he encouraged those who had come to “experience the relics of St. Anthony” by making a physical connection with them.

“Physical connection is very important,” he said. “You will not see any sparks flying. It is like you are giving your hand to St. Anthony, being in communion with him.”

At both Masses, he quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who urged all people to venerate relics of St. Anthony and other great saints remembering that “they are just human bones, remains, but they have been touched by the healing power of God.”

In making physical contact with St. Anthony, he said, “you are asking him to pray for you. … God wants to give you a message. God knows you have problems,” and above all, he said, God wants “you to know that he loves you and you are his children. It’s a message of hope and faith.”

The message of hope and faith was one that resonated with the many who traveled to Freehold to venerate the relics.

Young Anthony Vaccaro, a member of the Co-Cathedral Youth Group came to venerate the relics with his parents, Theresa and Joe, thoughtfully reflected on how St. Anthony became an important part of his life. “I was named for St. Anthony and my mom often tells me about the ways in which St. Anthony has helped her,” he said. “She wants me to follow in his footsteps.”

“Every morning and every night, I pray to St. Anthony. He is someone I connect with,” Vaccaro said.

Bindhu Yohannan and her children, Hannah, 13 and Ken, 12, were among many who traveled a distance to attend.

Members of St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Forane Church, Somerset, they set out for Freehold after Bindhu received a phone call from her husband telling her the relics would be at the Co-Cathedral.

“I received the call at 6 p.m. to say the relics would be here and we wanted to be here,” she said.

Many, including Karen Warhola and her mother, Lil Karpinski from Brick’s Visitation Parish, spoke of their love of St. Anthony of Padua as a saint and, as Father Conte described him, a lifelong friend.

“As a child, I was devoted to him. My mother took me to regular Tuesday night St. Anthony Novena’s at St. Anne Parish in Hoboken,” said Karpinski. “Since we can’t fly to Rome, this is as close as we can get.”

Warhola added: “as I approached the reliquary, if felt that he knew me right away. I could just hear him saying, ‘Oh, here she comes.’ He never fails. Just yesterday, I needed to renew my nursing credentials and I could not find my license.”

“The last one I could find was from 2014. I started praying to St. Anthony and in no time, my husband called at said he found it at home.”